Friday, June 21, 2013

HBR - The Unmanageable Star Performer

The Unmanageable Star Performer

The Unmanageable Star Performer - Harvard Business Review, from the May 2013 issue of the Harvard Business Review

This is a fictionalized case-study, "based on the case study "Superstar Leaders," by Abhishek Goel and Neharika Vohra (Indian Institute of Management, 2007)."

Isn't this a problem that almost everyone who has worked for some time in any industry would have come across -the star performer who gives results, but is too difficult to work with, who is demanding, expects the best from everyone, is sensitive to criticism, and has an excuse for everything. He brings in the gold, so he gets to set the rules. What do you do with such a person. If you are his subordinate, then you work silently, complain to your colleagues who will listen, wait for the star to fall, or look outside for other opportunities. If you are his peer, then you suffer him to the extent is unavoidable. If you are his boss, then you have to make a decision, and act upon it. Carping and hand-wringing are not options. As they say, "put up or shut up."

In the context of this case study, it is clear that Vijay's firm - Leman Highlander - has no real grouse with Vijay. They hired Vijay to set up its Mumbai office "eight years earlier", and from the information provided in the case Vijay's behavior has not changed overnight. He is what he has been for eight years. Leman Highlander are not going to fire him. That bluff was called when he resigned in a huff and the firm brought him back - that was an opportunity to have sent out the right and a tough message. Instead they broadcast their tolerance for Vijay's behavior to the entire company. Second, it doesn't appear that there is any strong or clear number-two who could step up and in for Vijay. Third, the firm does not seem to have done any searching outside either, which in itself is a step fraught with consequences should the word get back to Vijay and if the firm are not yet ready to fire Vijay.

What should Stefan talk to Vijay about? The weather. The city. The awesome Marine Drive at night. Cricket. Baseball. Talking about the personnel issues has not worked in the past, and without any clear strategy or BATNA - "Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement", it is a battle lost before the first word's been spoken. If Vijay disagrees, and vehemently so as he has done in the past, that it is not his problem, and he is not at fault, what options do the firm and Stefan have?

In some ways this is a case of self-selection. Leman Highlander have hired a person who will give them results, and Vijay has delivered. In sticking with and by Vijay for eight years LH have signalled what matters more and most to them - results. Stefan's visit is more of a storm in a teacup, at best a perfunctory going over the motions.

What could LH do? If they do decide and agree that Vijay has to change and if he does not then they need to replace him, then the first step is for Stefan to have a civil talk with Vijay and let him know that the firm's partners believe that this is not a leadership culture they believe in or want to inculcate. The long-term harm that a toxic leader inflicts on a firm and its employees is greater than any shorter term financial gain. The second is for LH to monitor Vijay for a three months. If there is no change in that period, they need to work on a leadership replacement plan and execute it at the earlies.

© 2013, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.